Converting trash into cash: Why whey is a forerunner in a circular economy

The notion of a circular economy is dominating the corporate agenda in numerous industries. It is all about instilling a cradle-to-cradle approach and philosophy, whereby nothing is lost during the process and where any side streams are given a fresh of breath of life.

Robin Wyers
Robin Wyers Food Product Development Specialist

Within the food ingredients sector, valuable side streams could involve using processing waste as a biobased material to power the factory itself, turning the biomass into animal feed, or even taking the side stream material and up-marketing it into a value added ingredient. 

Some great examples that we have seen of this in recent years include the use of fish side streams as seafood flavors, the utilization of traditionally discarded stems of mushrooms as a natural alternative flavor to replace monosodium glutamate (MSG), through to the use of wheat byproducts as texturised wheat protein for plant-based meat alternatives. 

We have seen the remnants from the citrus processing sector being marketed as food fibers for both functional and health properties. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the potential for finding value in coffee chaff and grounds. It recently emerged that the Ford Motor Company is partnering with McDonald’s in turning the fast food giant’s coffee chaff into vehicle parts, while reports have also emerged on derivatives from used coffee grounds potentially serving as a sustainable alternative to palm oil.

Dairy: A frontrunner in up-marketing side streams
One sector that doesn’t always get the credit that it deserves when it comes to a circular economy, however, is dairy. This industry has come under repeated attack in recent times regarding its carbon footprint, with little kudos being given on the progress made on optimised feed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, through the marketing of whey, the sector has actually been a keen frontrunner when it comes to dealing with side streams in a circular way for decades. It has effectively been turning trash into cash, by selling on what would have been disposed of in the past.

Back in the 1970s, whey protein from cheese making was still viewed as a by-product with little value. Now it is recognized as a high value ingredient with almost endless applications in multiple sectors, including infant nutrition, dairy, bakery and sports nutrition. It has additional cost reduction potential in applications such as chocolate, as confectionery producers find their margins squeezed. Additionally, it’s stability and low cost has made it an increasingly important ingredient for egg replacement in bakery products.

The growth in sports nutrition applications for whey protein has been particularly exponential, as technological advances enable NPD activity that moves far beyond the elite athlete and bodybuilding realm. So-called “weekend warriors” are being helped by improvements in whey protein quality, while taste masking technologies are allowing for true diversity in delivery methods. This is taking functional whey protein into anything from sports drinks, to performance bars, as well as to more classic powders and supplements. 

Greek yoghurt as a new sustainability challenge
One of the further success stories in recent years has been the incredible rise of Greek yogurt, which has triumphed on its inherent high protein content. Innova Market Insights reports that 31% of dairy launches tracked in 2018 featured a “high/source of protein” or “added protein claim”. In Europe, 20% of 2018 launches do so, in Asia it is 25%, while in sports mad Australasia it even reached 38%. In North America, the protein boom lead to a surge in interest in Greek yogurt and subsequently the Icelandic yoghurt skyr. This spelled huge success for brands such as Chobani and Fage, and subsequently Siggi’s, which made a major impact on the market from out of nowhere.

However, the rise of Greek yoghurt has not come without its critics. Yields for some dairy products are typically only 25-50% of the milk used. In the case of Greek yoghurt, for example, only 33% of the milk ends up in the finished product: the remaining two thirds is the thin, watery substance known as acid whey. A number of cheeses including cottage and cream cheeses are also responsible for creating this substance. 

Acid whey has been called “the dark side of Greek yoghurt” as it can have polluting effects. It removes oxygen from water when it decomposes, which can lead to the pollution of aquatic ecosystems. One of the initial consequences of the Greek yoghurt surge was that major producers started to pay farmers to take their acid whey. As a result, farmers resorted to mixing it with livestock feed or with manure to create fertiliser. But this approach is obviously far from optimal and the substance could still ultimately flow into waterways and cause damage. 

Acid whey as an untapped side stream
A change in mindset is required, as is an understanding that acid whey can have real value if optimally processed. Fortunately, academia and industry have been busy in looking at means to deal with acid whey, and even to turn it into a valuable dairy product. Just as has been possible for whey protein in the past, the same trajectory could be possible for acid whey. 

Amid the market evolution, the potential for acid whey as a side stream of Greek yogurt processing was identified several years ago. Several companies have developed specific compounds to allow Greek yogurt producers to extend their product portfolio and generate revenue from their waste stream. When these compounds are combined together with acid whey, the high lactose content can offer great potential in infant nutrition applications, for example. 

Getting the maximum from side streams
There is a growing need to do more with ingredient side streams, as calls intensify for suppliers to operate within a circular economy. While the dairy industry has made plenty of progress, more could be done to take value from what’s left after processing on trend dairy products, such as Greek yogurt. Rather than being perceived as a troublesome byproduct, acid whey could well become a value added ingredient that can open up NPD opportunities, just like whey from cheesemaking has done in the past. At the same time it’s important to recognize the role for whey protein itself. It is about more than turning trash into cash, it is about having a minimal impact on the environment while helping to feed a growing global population with high protein products. 

This blog contains material and information intended for B2B customers, suppliers and distributors, and is not intended as information to the final consumers.